Lessons From A Small French Town

It’s a truism among urbanists that small towns in the United States are dying.

Here in Indiana, the data confirms the bleak prognosis: Main Streets are filled with boarded up stores, wig shops and formerly vibrant emporiums that have been turned into sad “museums.” Young people move away as soon as they can, leaving a graying and resentful population behind.

The phenomenon is not restricted to the United States; everywhere, cities are booming while small towns are on the same, sad trajectory. So a recent report in the Guardian was eye-opening.

On a lane in what was once considered eastern France’s grimmest town, a street artist is up a ladder finishing a mural, the independent bookshop has a queue at the till, the organic cooperative is full of customers and Séverine Liebold’s arty independent tea shop is doing a brisk trade….

Just over a decade ago, Mulhouse, a town of 110,000 people near the German and Swiss borders, was a symbol of the death of the European high street. One of the poorest towns of its size in France, this former hub of the textile industry had long ago been clobbered by factory closures and industrial decline. It had high rates of poverty and youth unemployment, a shrinking population, and more than 100 shops empty or boarded up. The centre had become associated with gangs….

Today, Mulhouse is known for the staggering transformation of its thriving centre, bucking the national trend for high street closures.

In the past eight years, more than 470 shops and businesses have opened here. Mulhouse is unique in that 75% of new openings are independents, from comic book stores to microbreweries and organic grocers. It is one of the only places in France with as many independents as franchises. And it is one of very few places in France where more shops are opening than closing.

Mulhouse was only one of a large number of dying small towns in France.

French political powers woke up late to the problem of dying town centres. Outside the Paris region, an average of 11% of high street premises lie empty, similar to the UK. But France, which has a powerful hypermarket industry and lobby, has for decades hastened town centre decline by allowing out-of-town superstores to mushroom over kilometres of dull grey hangars on the outskirts of towns.

Leaders only recently turned to the issue, fearing boarded up shopfronts and vanishing services could help usher in Donald Trump-style populists. Polls showed that in small French towns, the fewer the services on offer – notably post offices – the higher the vote for the far right.

What caused this town’s turnaround? How did Mulhouse buck the trend?

The simple answer is public investment in public amenities.

Mulhouse set out to rebalance the housing mix. Generous subsidies for the renovation of building fronts expedited a facelift of more than 170 buildings. Security and community policing were stepped up. Transport was key – with a new tram system, bike schemes, shuttle buses and cheap parking.

But making the town’s public spaces attractive was just as important, with wider pavements, dozens of benches, and what officials deemed a “colossal budget” for tree planting and maintenance, gardening and green space. Local associations, community groups and residents’ committees were crucial to the efforts.

The idea was to create a town center where people could feel good, where they could congregate. The town re-appropriated the town’s center as a kind of agora, the place where everyone could meet. Olivier Razemon, the author of a recent study called How France Killed Its Towns, says town centers should be seen as a theatrical backdrop to life’s encounters, with the understanding that: “People don’t go to the town centre just for shops, but because it’s pleasant, because they want to meet up.”

There were several other aspects to Mulhouse’s revitalization. An important element was emphasis upon independent, “home grown” enterprises offering wares not available in the big box stores.

The major driver of the town’s resurgence, however, was its substantial public investment in public amenities: public transportation, restoration of the built environment, generous plantings and landscaping that made the town’s public spaces attractive–all of the elements of what urbanists call “quality of life.”

In so many small towns, unwillingness to spend tax dollars on these “quality of life” elements creates a vicious cycle of disinvestment and abandonment. Mulhouse chose to invest heavily in them instead, and to create a virtuous cycle. It worked.

There’s a lesson there.


  1. One need not look only at France. Look right here in Indiana, at the revitalization of South Bend. The similarities with the situation in Mulhouse are clear.

  2. This sounds similar to the transformation of Fortville. A few pioneers opened good restaurants and helped clean up the town center. The results have been impressive so far.

  3. This investment sounds very nice, but where did the tax dollars come from? Here in Indiana, and across the entire country, it takes money to beautify neglected town centers. If there are not enough good paying jobs to bring in those tax dollars and, even more important, to spend money in the shops once they open, then how does this take place and what is the purpose?

    I live in a county on the southwest border of the NE corner of Indiana. My county has shrunk dramatically over the past three decades due to the loss of living wage jobs.

    The county seat leaders are trying to beautify the downtown and build apartments and condos in an effort to get the younger generation to move there. The issue still remains that one must drive at least 50 miles one way for a good paying job. The apartments and condos that are being built here can be found anywhere.

    The bottom line is who wants to spend two hours a day on the road to get to work and still not have access to shopping or other amenities?

    Of course, this is just an example of one of millions of small rural towns all over this country that will never really have a chance at returning to what it once was.

    Until our government recognizes that they have got to stop funneling all of the money up to the rich via this bastard tax system we will continue spiraling downward as a country.

  4. When the Reagan administration stopped enforcing monopoly and anti-trust laws like Taft-Hartley, the descent into Friedmanism began in earnest. Cutting social services is the basis for “supply-side” economics, aka Reaganomics, aka unregulated capitalism. The rise of corporatism was inevitable and entrepreneurship went out the window. It’s no accident that new, small businesses in the United States tanked soon thereafter. This “idea” of tax cuts and cutting of social services to enhance the wealthiest is the result of allowing Republicans to run governments.

    These people are NOT conservative. They are economic reactionaries serving only the few while giving (barely) lip service to the people. Margaret Thatcher was Europe’s Reagan and tried forcing the same sort of economics on the British and then the EU. These people are fulfilling Marx’s prophecy about capitalism left unregulated.

    I wonder how many of the small businesses left in our countries own big chunks of stock and play the market on a daily basis.

  5. Just yesterday I responded to an E-mail from Mayor Hogsett regarding the city program investing in neighborhood improvements where neighborhoods have money in organizations willing to improve their areas. My response was regarding the areas of gentrification where primarily out-of-state developers receive tax incentives to renovate the areas…after evicting low-income, seniors and disabled from homes in neighborhoods their hard work and tax dollars created and maintained for years. Yes; I am still harping on the apartment house at 222 South Downey Avenue in Irvington which will soon be removing its low-income, senior and disabled residents with no assistance. The eventual income to the developers is then spent in their home states rather than benefiting the local economy of the gentrified areas or the city at large.

    “The major driver of the town’s resurgence, however, was its substantial public investment in public amenities: public transportation, restoration of the built environment, generous plantings and landscaping that made the town’s public spaces attractive–all of the elements of what urbanists call “quality of life.”

    Many of these areas could be “small towns” within big cities if the tax abatements and incentives were used locally to improve areas to meet the residents’ needs. There are a few pockets where areas have seen some improvements using local tax dollars but the residents were often removed and the improvements were bars and coffee shops and some specialty shops with prices beyond remaining residents’ income. They are also still surrounded by declining areas where infrastructure has been ignored for years and crime rates are still high.

    All of this does require pride on the part of residents to step up to put their “money where their mouth is” or put “sweat equity” into it by helping; if it is nothing more than having pride and self-respect to put effort into maintaining their own property.

  6. Mulhouse is a lot larger than many of the small towns in Indiana that are dying. Places such as Morgantown don’t have the tax base to spruce things up. And of course, the legislature thinks that tax monies should go to vouchers for religious-based schools, not to stimulate the economy.

  7. JoAnn,
    Bet your comments were the only ones pointing out how the economics of local redevelopment affect those who can lease afford it.
    They NEVER ask those who will be directly affected by redevelopment what they think. Good for you taking the time to speak up on the matter.

  8. Nancy writes, “The bottom line is who wants to spend two hours a day on the road to get to work and still not have access to shopping or other amenities?”

    Vernon defined Neoliberalism perfectly.

    I believe Marx predicted two paths for post-capitalism: fascism or socialism.

    Two presidential candidates fit those paths: Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump. All the other candidates embrace capitalism but want to tweak it a bit. This will not work.

    Look at Indy and the surrounding bedroom communities. This is another result of supply-side economics and deregulation of business. However, our median wages are stuck in the mid-1990s.

    Most big cities are liberal, while small towns are conservative. Meanwhile, conservative economic policies are hurting GOP constituents the most. Republican voters are voting against their best interests. They are told “big-government” is the problem; therefore, socialism is BAD — likened to communism.

    What keeps all these harmful policies in place?

    Propaganda…lots of it.

    As Sagan would say, they are “bamboozled.”

    Market-based policies are an illusion which benefits the wealthiest people and institutions. These policies also extract income and wealth from the “Middle and Lower Classes.”

    This is why Einstein and Piketty advocate for centrally planned economies. Cooperatives fit their definition because the people have the power versus the wealthiest who have access to significant cash for investments.

    Socialism or Fascism…choose wisely in November.

  9. JoAnn is spot on with her criticism of gentrification programs. Everybody loves seeing the revitalized neighborhoods, but nobody ever give much consideration to those who were forced out by rising property values, which in turn, increase property taxes. If you are on a fixed or limited income, you can’t keep up. Why not freeze property taxes for those who still live in the area and bring in not-for-profits to help them refresh their homes with new coats of paint, landscaping and other fixes that help everyone live better.

  10. Peggy,

    The City of Indianapolis has been trying to get the legislature to freeze the property taxes of residents of gentrifying neighborhoods for at least the last two sessions, and to the best of my knowledge, the GOP supermajority has refused to consider doing so.

  11. While I realize that the original concept of capitalism is a viable system, the growth of corporate capitalism in America, for example, is destroying not only our small towns, but our social and political systems. In his 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism, world-renowned economist Ha-Joon Chang points to the manipulation and mutation of the system since Reaganomics – and we all remember how successful that was.
    At least the robber barons of the late 19th century were individuals responsible (and liable) for their actions; we now have faceless corporate entities that enjoy virtual immunity from prosecution, yet benefit from a citizen’s right to a political voice. It is a recipe for the disaster we see unfolding today.

  12. Community Development Corporations (CDCs) in Indianapolis once had access to federal funds that allowed them to manage home repair programs for the elderly and poor in their areas. Then along came the greed and heartlessness of Republican controlled Congressesand state governments, and just like that it all dried up and so did the impact of the CDCs. And while there are property tax exemptions for the poor and the elderly they are too little to give much relief to those who need help the most. But, hey! tax cuts! As long as the rich and the Trumpsters pay as little as possible that is all that matters. Right?

  13. I think a lot of the comments missed the mark. This is a small town, the size of Kokomo. They invested in transit and people friendly spaces with lots of trees and greenery. They subsidized store front revitalization. They beefed up safety. I think the transformation was about making the town center a destination for people and not just cars.

    A lot of American towns might have the problem of being able to afford any of this because the density is so low. It cost a lot of money to maintain miles of very suburban streets, with utilities and community services (like fire, police, and public transit). I live in the urban core of Indianapolis, and even here, I think the density is almost to low to support these kinds of amenities.

    There is also a strong belief that people will move away if you try to charge them for great amenities. Many cities prove that wrong but politicians and the public won’t believe that.

  14. And George complains about how I blame all of our economic ills on Republicans. Today’s blog and comments underscore that thesis very well. The party was founded on serving the wealthiest, not the middle or lower classes. It’s really that simple.

  15. Goshen, Indiana has been revitalized by a combination of young entrepreneurs, progressive Democratic mayors, Hispanics who started restaurants and an older couple who envisioned and actually worked to rebuild the downtown. Goshen is a little known gem.

  16. At it’s root the problem is how much the world has changed over our lifetime due to inevitable progress fueled by Capitalism. Is it good or bad?

    I like knowing that the medical profession can cure so many of the ills that we all can look forward to. My worry now is not living long enough but too long.

    I like having virtually all of the information in the world available in my living room, in my pocket, in my car, wherever I go, instantly available.

    I like having social media as a place, though a virtual place, where people can congregate and share the story of their lives and debate politics and issues of the day.

    I like having seen the world first hand.

    I like having a car that is on the verge of driving itself so as my reflexes and senses slow down nobody has to tell me, Dad, it’s time to give up driving. It’s just too dangerous for others who use the roads.

    What does all of that good cost? Dollars are no longer the relevant measure though the are the only measure Capitalism is designed to pay attention to. The dollar cost today of easy living is small, at least for people like me who were lucky enough to be born of and into a situation that allowed us to fit like a hand in a glove into this environment. It could have been very different and is for many, many of us. Not everyone is in a position, skill, location, interest, ability, training, education, ability to travel, etc to be part of this world and in fact prosper in the true meaning of the word from it. Many are left behind not by choice but by the factors that they were born with and into.

    There is a new book out by Dr Chris Arnade called “Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America” that explains their issues based on several years of face to face research.

    Simple dignity. What I consider both a birthright and and, at this point in life, an achievement possible for me because what I was born with and into.

    Many of the left behind have concluded that being a Republican confers dignity and just as many believe being a Democrat does. They see those two associations as conferring what Dr Arnade calls credentials leading to some of us living credentialed life, and entitled to sit in the front rows, while others are relegated to the back rows.

    We all need dignity whether it is conferred by degrees or street gang affiliation or down at the grange or in our workplace (if we have one).

    Do we stop the progress to solve this problem, or is it a temporary problem that will mitigate only by our generation dying? I just don’t know.

  17. I recall reading a piece by an urban geographer some forty years ago that he thought the idea of cities as workable suspect. He thought of urbanization as experimental and unproven. He wrote of rimmed-in cities by suburbs as a bad thing and wrote optimistically of small towns as workable. It appears he was wrong with his prognostications, that small towns are dying; that cities are growing, and that we are mired in comparative amenities in search of an answer where both cities and small towns prosper. I think that standard for comparison if an effect rather than a cause.

    Local taxation for costs of government along with wage inequality and inflation has reached a point where even residents of cities will have to leave town – but to where? Small towns? Not likely. We have a housing crisis in this country, and not just in the Silicon areas of several major cities. The unaffordable dribbling effect is reaching large cities and small towns alike and we need federal intervention via a Housing Security Law patterned on the Social Security idea of guaranteed housing rather than guaranteed income.

    How to finance it? A Tobin tax, reform of the internal revenue code to make the rich pay their fair share with an end to “carried interest” and other corporate loopholes, reform of the bankruptcy code to end the unfair use of Chapter 11 by corporations and, of course, halving the “defense” budget (another giveaway not to servicemen and women but to the bottom lines of Boeing, Northrup, Raytheon, and other flag waving corporations, a situation where those who would die for their country, many of whom are on food stamps, are used by giant “defense” contractors to fatten their bottom lines.

    A depression gave us the conditions of crisis which inspired passage of the Social Security Act of 1935, the greatest piece of social legislation the Congress has ever passed, and since a crisis is a terrible thing to waste, perhaps a liberal Congress can pass a Housing Security Act in FDR fashion to solve our rapidly worsening housing crisis. Perhaps.

  18. It’s true that small towns are dying. I’m ambivalent about if that’s a problem or not.
    Of course it’s a problem if you live there… but it wasn’t that long ago that Cities were dying. People’s tastes change.
    We know that mechanization has dramatically reduced farm employment. Likewise with factories. There’s no significant work. We romanticize the small shops and such that fit on a main street… but we sure as heck don’t want to do our grocery shopping at a local main street grocer – for the prices or the selection.
    For many of us, work has become much more sophisticated. It requires access to technology, education, proximity to opportunity and also networking opportunities with other people. These things often don’t exist in small towns.
    Small towns work when they are near larger areas. They don’t work when people must depend on the small town for significant employment, for regular shopping, or for higher education. For the most part, small towns have become tourist destinations.
    It’s possible to build livable communities and build into them the “town center”. It’s possible to have small towns be the “town center” while larger city provides employment and such.
    We have the Main Street Program – we generally know what works and what doesn’t work. It’s not that we don’t know.
    We can blame those damn Republicans, or “neoliberalism” (?!?) or whatever… but ultimately we all are to blame. We don’t want to live in a small town.

  19. One doesn’t have to drive beyond the city limits of Indianapolis to see this. Just take a drive east on Washington Street/U.S. 40 from Emerson Avenue on the east side. As someone who grew up on the Indy east side and who now lives in Fishers I was horrified by what I saw during a recent excursion back there one afternoon. Abandoned buildings, including a very run-down former Target store and many other smaller examples of boarded up buildings. It used to be a fairly bustling business corridor but it’s a shadow of its former self now.

  20. Because my only limited knowledge of this topic is based on one of a personal nature, I defer to JoAnn’s mention of a particular address… I am one of the people who
    is being asked to relocate based on the current ongoing “gentrification” process”. My daughter and I are only two of the countless number of displaced persons all over this country and the world who are being shoved into low income/disabled/elderly, housing that is mostly located in high crime areas. The communities we lived in, worked in, and supported financially and socially, are now too busy and too slick to care.

    And Pete, I guess at my time of life and because of all the others in my situation, in regards to your question: ” Do we stop the progress to solve this problem, or is it a temporary problem that will mitigate only by our generation dying? I just don’t know.
    I believe I do know and “it is a temporary problem that will mitigate only by our generation dying.”

  21. None of the woe is them things that we can all imagine are new, they’ve been going on forever to other people in other times and other circumstances and other countries as well as ours.

    If we can mitigate any of them with effective reasonable solutions, almost everyone who posts here would agree that we should and we support politicians with real world solutions for them.

    What would be better would be anticipating some of them in advance and mitigating what can be before, not just after, they happen. That’s the goal of anticipating to the inevitable future and adapting before rather than after.

    America used to be successful because both business and government were moderately successful in doing that and investing in preparation for what’s coming. Unfortunately business run government isn’t because business would rather invest in their future and therefore resent paying for government investment even if ultimately there’s a return on their investment.

    We need to return to government of, for, and by we, the people despite Republican resistance to it.

  22. @Tom Lund:

    You are not wrong – but this is what happens when the middle class leaves an area. Many of the factories around there closed, and with it the income of a lot of households.

    I am sensitive to what Theresa and JoAnn are saying – but I’ve lived on the East Side for a long while and I see very clearly that the proportion of lower-income households that we have is not supportable or sustainable and hasn’t been for decades. The area cannot be sustained without significantly more middle-income households. Period. What’s more, the entire City is not on a sustainable glide path without significantly more middle-income households.

    Demonizing “gentrification” is wrong headed. Those empty store fronts and vacant drug houses sure aren’t doing anyone any good – least of all poor people.

    There is no government program that is going to rebuild those homes- and I’m not sure that there should be. I did that for 8 years – and our work was an utter failure, both on the micro level and the macro level. Many of those homes have far exceeded their design lifespan and require either major rehab or redevelopment.

    What we do need – that we don’t seem to have – is a redevelopment apparatus that can acquire property and then prep it for redevelopment.

  23. We shop in Mulhouse about once or twice a month. There’s a mega grocery store called Carrefour inside of a mall and they have Euro prices we like. We were there a few days ago. We haven’t been to the town center but you have made me realize we need to check it out.

  24. Maywin; thank you for coming forward, you can speak to Tom Lund’s comments better than anyone else because that is your neighborhood. Sadly decaying with small areas of small interesting shops and a few restaurants but they cannot hold up the entire East Washington Corridor and further east. Tom didn’t mention it but I have in the recent past; the old Eastgate Shopping Center is now home to the IMPD Eastside Community Police, there is also a Prosecutor’s Office located there and one massage parlor. I don’t know what else is there on the Shadeland side. The grassy area on the Shortridge Road side is now filled with solar panels. But this city property appears abandoned; it is windowless, badly in need of paint and the parking lot is cracked cement and some areas with weeds. WHY? The old K Mart property is another tacky area where some business could be located or; turn it into apartments. If the original Victory Field baseball park can be turned into expensive condos, why are there so many usable buildings sitting empty and deteriorating but new expensive restaurants pop up in outlying areas. Republicans have all of the money but no idea how to put it to the best use for businesses and residents. Obviously because it will not make more money for them.

  25. “Republicans have all of the money but no idea how to put it to the best use for businesses and residents. Obviously because it will not make more money for them.”

    Hi Joanne,
    You don’t know me but we have a friend in common – Theresa.

    I want you to understand up front, as well as Maywin, that I’m not intentionally being antagonistic, nasty or judgmental.

    I don’t know about the “Republicans” part of the above statement, but you are correct about the last sentence. All businesses, be they bakers, plumbers, grocery stores, veterinarians, doctors, liquor stores, car washes, or beauty parlors are there for only one reason – to make money. They are not there to serve the best interest of anyone. They are not there out of the goodness of their heart. They are not there for charity. Keep in mind that “to make money” doesn’t mean “to take advantage of, to rip-off, or to swindle” – those kinds of businesses usually don’t last.

    I know all of that sounds harsh – but suspend judgment for just a moment please.

    We do not have businesses on the east-side because there isn’t a demand for them. How do I know there isn’t a demand for them? Because they aren’t there. Why aren’t they there? Because they aren’t profitable. It’s really that simple.

    We signal to providers of goods and services how much of a particular good or service we want by buying it at a given price. How many Mc Donald’s do we want the market to provide on the east side? As many as are profitable. How many high-end restaurants do we want? As many as are profitable. How many liquor stores do we want? As many as are profitable. When a provider of good or service is not profitable, they go out of business. That is the signal that the particular good or service isn’t demanded.

    Business owners (Democrat or Republican) risk significant amounts of their own money when they open a business. A fast food franchise – just for example – may easily cost $1 million for an individual. When you have a million dollars of your own money on the line, you don’t engage in wishful or magical thinking. You do market research, you run demographics, you have a pretty good idea how things are going to go before you ever make that commitment. If you are wrong, the market will take your million dollars and won’t even thank you for playing.

    The market is a tough, unsympathetic, and unsentimental thing for determining how much of what good or service to produce – but it’s pretty efficient and works better than anything else that we know of.

    Why do we have many discount stores on the east side? Because that’s what the market will support. That’s what’s profitable. That’s what we buy when we open our wallets.
    Why don’t we have high-end retail? Because despite what people might say – they don’t actually want it enough to pay for it.

    Why is the Eastgate shopping center dead? Because there isn’t a market demand for a mall there. How do I know? Because it’s not there.

    I know very well that at some point the war on poverty became the war on poor people. But when I say that an area isn’t sustainable without more middle-income households and that demonizing “gentrification” is wrong-headed, it’s not an attack on poor households. If we want stores with fresh produce, for example, then we have to have enough households to support that. If we want homes that are maintained, then we have to have homeowners with the money to maintain them. If we want schools, libraries, decent roads, etc. then we need the property tax revenue to pay for that. It’s really that simple.

  26. Kurt; won’t speak for Maywin but I am an intelligent adult and I well know the difference between a politician and a businessman or woman and that the latter IS in business to make money. Politicians are elected to work for and protect their constituents. You speak as a Republican who does not know that difference or the reasons so many of us speak against privatizing…masked in the term “outsourcing”. Republicans actually believe they are making government smaller by privatizing/outsourcing. Just as they believed privatizing/outsourcing the disbursement of public employee retirement checks has made Indiana local government smaller; it is still administered by Indiana Public Retiree System but now they are also paying State Street Retiree Services to print and mail our checks rather than their own employees. State Street Retiree Services is not a government office but performing government work, paid for by our tax dollars. INPRS has not convinced the Indiana Republican legislators to provide a COLA for retirees since 2010 and the majority of these retirees are Republicans

    We have wandered far afield from the issue of today’s blog so I will return to one vital quote; “French political powers woke up late to the problem of dying town centres.” and to the fact that it takes a joint effort to succeed. Our political powers have not yet awakened to the problems across this country and Indianapolis is a prime example with our dying or dead areas such as the east side referred to by Maywin, Tom Lund and myself. The gentrified areas here and those to come do and will benefit from our tax dollars but the tax payers will be let out in the cold…literally in some cases.

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